Growth like a Gardener

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Something common to coaches, teachers, managers, and parents is the challenge of striking a balance between over-controlling your people (or, in the case of parents, your children) on the one hand and abandoning them on the other.

Over-controlling usually creates resistance. Even when over-controlling “works,” it tends to be for a short time. Eventually it leads to dependence. Abandonment, meanwhile, leads to moral, and in some cases, physical, injury. Neither approach is a good long-term solution.

Perhaps there is a middle way. The way of a gardener.

A gardener can’t approach their work with an overly structured agenda because they have no idea what the weather will be or what the plants will become as they change from day-to-day. But they also can’t abandon their plants; if they do, the plants will probably die, or at the very least not sprout as fully as they could have. The work of a gardener is to create a safe space for their plants to exist in, and then pay close attention to the plants, responding to their legitimate needs but not coddling them. The artist Jenny Odell writes, “Somewhere between over-engineering and abandonment…the sweet spot is patiently listening and observing…[being] a quiet and patient collaborator with the ecosystem you tend to.” 

This reminds me of a concept called the good enough mother—today, I’d rather say good enough parent—coined by the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, in the early 1950’s. The good enough parent doesn’t immediately respond to their child’s each and every need. But they don’t abandon their child either. Instead, they create the space for their child to become themselves. The pay attention to their child so they can shepherd the process of growth and development along the way. They create a container in which their child grows.

One way to embody good enough is to go from giving explicit directions to asking questions. Not just leading questions, or those where you already know the answer, but ones truly born out of curiosity. These questions can serve as a way to keep someone on the path without plowing it for them.

This isn’t as easy as over-controlling or abandoning. But it’s probably a lot more powerful and, ultimately, more beneficial. The best assets in any relationship are caring and love. And as I’ve written before, what is caring and love if not paying close attention and intimately collaborating with what’s in front of you?

— Brad

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